Saturday, 21 March 2015

Givenchy-en-Gohelle


The tiny Canadian cemetery at Givenchy-en-Gohelle is tucked up alongside a stable, directly south of the “Pimple”- the spur above the village from which the cemetery gets its name.  The cemetery is shrouded in trees, and the stringent smell of manure eliminates the competing effort made by the few shrubs and flowers that provide contrast to the greying headstones. Horses from the adjoining stable aren’t shy to stick their necks over the low stone wall to scope out visitors.

Givenchy-en-Gohelle Canadian Cemetery was used by the Canadians for three months, starting in March 1917, and just under 160 soldiers are buried there. The 4th Canadian Division was positioned in the area for much of this period, represented by battalions from the West, and the cemetery has a disproportionate number of graves from the Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the 72nd Seaforth Highland regiment. The position of the headstones is typical of a battlefield cemetery, in which bodies were often buried side-by-side, sometimes lying next to each other in the same grave or, in the worst cases, indistinguishably together.

At precisely 3 am on March 1st, a cloud of White Star gas, a mixture of chlorine and phosgene, drifted across No Man’s Land, wavering in a northeasterly breeze that was beginning to pick up. The wind was cause for concern; much of the cloud had drifted back to their own lines and the decision was made to cancel a second gas attack, the release of the more potent chlorine gas, that was scheduled for zero hour plus one forty-five. A barrage of artillery shook the earth just before 6 am and the men of the first wave, a hundred of them, readied themselves for the attack - they had five minutes. On signal, they climbed out of their trenches and quickly occupied the German front lines with apparent ease. And then everything went to Hell!

Germans poured from the dugouts where they had taken shelter from the artillery, and threw bombs at the attacking troops of the Seaforth Highlanders; the German lines had looked pretty thin, but there were a number of machine guns further back and as they came into view the guns had immediately opened up. Lt. Charles Morris, a thirty-four year old office manager from Winnipeg leading the first wave, was killed in the ensuing fight. He was one of the first men buried at Givenchy-en-Gohelle cemetery. 

Lt. McLennan, a railway conductor from Field, British Columbia, lead the fourth of five patrols in the second wave. He had arrived in the battalion at the end of January and this was his first time beyond his own front line. He had positioned his men at the lip of one of the large craters outside the German lines, setting up a Lewis gun that would provide cover. From this position he could direct his men and stay in touch with the patrol to his right. 

McLennan’s patrol crossed back through the Canadian lines less than thirty minutes later, fifteen minutes earlier than planned, but he was oblivious to the chaos that had unfolded on the battalion’s flank. For their part, the raid had been fairly successful; a lot of damage had been done and the German front line trench was virtually obliterated. It cost the Battalion 88 men, wounded, missing or killed. But the 54th Kootenay and 75th Toronto Battalions to their left had been heavily hit, suffering 50% casualties - many occurring in the first few minutes of the raid.

The next day, two German officers left their trenches and walked in to No Man’s Land - they waited until they were joined by an officer of the 87th Battalion. They said they were going to carry the Canadians who’d been killed in their lines half way across No Man’s Land so they could be collected and buried in Canadian ground. 

As McLennan watched the bodies being carried across to the Canadian lines he knew he had been lucky to get back unscathed.  A month after the “Gas Raid”, just a week before the battalion would take part in the assault on Vimy Ridge, McLennan lead a second patrol, a much smaller one, beyond the wire to reconnoitre German lines and again returned safely.

But on April 9th his luck changed. McLennan was commanding one of two platoons in A company, slated for the second wave of the attack on Vimy Ridge. They had formed up at their assembly trench forty minutes before the attack was to begin. 

His men were well equipped for the fight ahead, carrying an extra bandolier of ammunition and four mills bombs. They had stored their extra boots back at the drying room at Cabaret Rouge, a communication trench that had taken its name from the small cafe outside of Souchez, but with the temperature below freezing they were decked out in their greatcoats - and they were all carrying full canteens and an extra ration of food. 

When the signal flare went up,they had moved out, and despite resistance his platoon had quickly mopped up the German trench and set-up a strong point at a junction further along.  Lieutenant Vicars, from D Company was to have moved up in support of him, but a Canadian barrage halted his progress, and McLennan’s platoon was left well extended. One machine gun crew moved out towards him, but all but one were killed. 

By the time his platoon was withdrawn, after dark that night, only four men remained alive; Lt. McLennan, the only son in his family, had been killed. A few months after his death his wife Georgina, living in Comox, received a payment of $120 - a gratuity of $240, less a special pension bonus of $120.







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